What Does It Mean When Rich White People Buy Paintings About Immigrant Labor?
Ramiro Gomez, No Splash (after David Hockney's "A Bigger Splash," 1967) (2014)
Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo credit: Osceola Refetoff
Tilda Swinton lounges by a pool in a perfect, white halter-top suit in Luca Guadagnino’s new film A Bigger Splash, set to release May 4. She is staying with a new lover and a former one at a place where the sun shines through well-tended plants and the couches have bold stripes. The shots are pristine. The people who populate the film — played by Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson — have existential worries but not domestic, pragmatic ones. Guadagnino lifted the title of his movie from an iconic painting by David Hockney. The British expat, who fell for L.A. in the 1960s, painted a swimming pool behind a clean-lined, minimal adobe home in 1967. Only a beige director’s chair sat on the patio and, in the pool, a splash below the diving board suggested someone had just jumped in.
“What is behind — what is beyond, what is before — the crashing of the surface?” Guadagnino asked rhetorically in an interview with the Telegraph, referring to the painting. For him, answering those questions meant casting glamorous white people and placing them in a tropical setting where romantic tensions fester.
L.A.-based artist Ramiro Gomez also recently riffed on Hockney’s A Bigger Splash. He too wondered what was behind the cool, aspirational surface of Hockney’s scene. But he came to different conclusions. He depicted a pool cleaner and a maid working on a back deck that closely resembles Hockney’s. No Splash, Gomez calls this painting, because there is no splash in the pool.
Ramiro Gomez, The Broad (2015)
Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo credit: Michael Underwood
Gomez’s second solo exhibition, “On Melrose,” opened last week at Charlie James Gallery. It includes paintings of brown-skinned workers tending bushes in front of Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue and a laborer with a leaf blower working in front of the hot-pink Paul Smith store. The show sold out quickly.
Gomez has become something of a sensation since 2013, when Charlie James started exhibiting his work at art fairs. Before that, publications, including this one, featured his guerrilla-style installations, where he’d place cardboard cutouts of laborers on lawns or streets in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Bel-Air. People were more able to see a painting than an actual laborer, he discovered. Gomez — who grew up in San Bernardino, the son of immigrants who were granted amnesty under Reagan in the 1980s — started doing this work while employed as a nanny in West Hollywood, as a way to grapple with what he was seeing. “The pool cleaner would come in, work alongside me,” he said, during a recent phone call. “There was no other outlet. Visually, [art] was my only way to show the world that I would see.”
His guerrilla work, which he started doing out of a sense of necessity and still does, could not be purchased. However, his paintings can be, and often are by people who can afford to hire help. Fans and buyers of Gomez’s paintings have said his work helps them see what they’ve overlooked. Even essayist Lawrence Weschler, who has written about Hockney for years, said the paintings enlightened him. In some ways, it’s the most gratifying kind of success story: an artist showing people what they’ve overlooked, raising their consciousness about class and labor. In another way, his success is unsettling. What does it mean that collectors, who may or may not pay their own help fairly, desire these well-executed, attractive scenes that underscore economic inequality?
The art world does not have a glowing track record when it comes to labor issues. There are the big things, such as the auction-house sales at which sellers but not artists reap rewards, or labor exploitation at the Guggenheim’s Dubai satellite. And there are smaller things. During a VIP reception at LACMA a few years ago, a security guard stopped a donor on his way out to a courtyard, to view a sculpture of a woman with a beehive for a head. The donor had a glass in hand. “No drinks outside, sir,” the guard told him. He handed her his drink, which she took with some surprise. She was neither a busgirl nor caterer, but the donor had barely looked her way.
Ramiro Gomez, Fred Segal Store (2016)
Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery. Photo Credit: Michael Underwood
Artists other than Gomez have, over the past few years, worked to make labor more visible in a gallery setting, often through performance. In January, Peruvian-born artist Maria de Victoria hired Central and South American immigrants she found in Home Depot parking lots to spend a day separating rice from beans at New York’s Kate Werble Gallery. She called the performance Day: Labor, and told Artsy.net that she “wanted to showcase the huge work ethic that immigrants have.” In 2000, Spanish artist Santiago Sierra hired laborers, all political exiles, to sit inside cartons in a Zurich gallery. They would collect salaries in secret, because it was illegal, according to certain governments, for such exiles to work. Here in L.A., in 2009, artist Yoshua Okon hired day laborers from Guatemala and asked them to act out scenes from the civil war they had lived through. They performed in a Home Depot parking lot while Okon filmed. He screened the films at the Hammer Museum.
Projects such as these, in which laborers become performers, can seem exploitative regardless of the intentions. Even if you pay your workers — de Victoria paid hers more than four times their standard rate — what does it mean to put people who are in need of work on display? Are they serving as unfamiliar attractions for a gallery audience?
Because Gomez’s laborers appear in paintings, based on the many photos he snaps throughout the day, his work reads differently. The question is less about exploitation, more about desire. Cris Scorza, who serves as the education curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, helped the museum acquire a few of Gomez’s paintings. In the context of a museum, his appropriations of Hockney made sense. They referenced the California work that MCASD already has in its collection but introduced something new to the conversation. “I like to present work that might feel like its political strength is kind of hidden,” Scorza says. She doesn’t know which private collectors purchase Gomez’s work, but she believes they are likely “more liberal in their thinking.” She continued, “He’s presenting work to people who have some power to make change.” She also thinks it’s important that Gomez is willing to talk about the complexities of doing what he does in a capitalist art market. “He allows us to expand the conversation,” she said. “He’s very approachable.”
When he was a nanny, doing guerrilla paintings and other work for a smaller audience, Gomez didn’t have to think about the role of the artist in a market as much as he does now.
“Now that I’m transitioning to a full-time artist, I’m encountering people coming to drop $10,000 on a painting, seeing it’s easier for them to drop that than raise the hourly wage for a housekeeper,” he said. He was in New York City when we spoke, and had just spent the day amidst the bustle, spotting laborers on crowded streets, watching people just go about their business. “I’m struggling every day with the deepness of these things,” he said, then added that he’s very interested in visibility versus invisibility.
Undocumented immigrants, like his own parents once were, don’t have even have a paper trail confirming their existence. Nor do they necessarily have access to the kind of career or social position that renders them visible beyond their own communities.
“These people won’t exist unless they’re documented,” he said. So he's documenting them by placing them on canvases that are being seen and collected. Right now, he accepts the disconnect between his intentions and his market as part of his project. "Until we have alternative system," he said of the gallery world, "then we are forced to grapple with these things."
Gomez still does the cardboard installations. Occasionally, now that he’s showing at institutions more often, he’s placed unsanctioned cutouts in museum contexts. “They’re not monetized,” he says of this work. “For me, I need the balance.”
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to reflect that Gomez's parents were granted amnesty in the early 1980s.
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